What Is The Right Chapter Length?

Nat Russo Plot and Structure, Process, Writing 21 Comments

New writers invariably get around to asking me the same question:

“What is the right chapter length?”

So let’s dig into this in a little bit of detail and figure out the answer!


Let me just preface everything I say in this article with “In the case of my style of writing…” That should drive the point home that I’m not trying to establish any “rules” I think people should follow.
 
For me, chaptering is a tool that serves at least four different purposes, and sometimes each at the same time.
 
 

Pacing

Chaptering is, first and foremost, a pacing tool. With a creative use of both chapter breaks and section breaks, you can accelerate or decelerate the pace of your story as needed. This works particularly well when you are running multiple subplot threads through your book.
 
Pacing is one of the things you must master along the way. Writing a fast-paced story is wonderful, but if you maintain the same breakneck speed throughout the entire story, you risk overwhelming the reader. Maintain a lackadaisical pace throughout your book, and you’re likely to lose your reader long before they get to chapter two. There’s a time for speed, and there’s a time to stop and smell the roses. Placing a chapter break is a great way to signal to the reader “hey…something is changing here, so take a deep breath.”
 
Notice I didn’t say it should signal “Hey reader, this is a great place to stop and put the book down!” Chapter/section breaks are not meant to be convenient places to stop reading! If that’s how you’re using them, I suggest you reevaluate your technique.
 
But wait…you asked about chapter length. I’m getting there. I promise.
 

Characterization/Point-Of-View

I mentioned multiple plot lines in the last section. When I was writing Necromancer Awakening (my Bestselling dark fantasy – available now on Amazon), I had three unique plot lines that all needed to wind their way through the book and eventually merge. Each of these plot lines were written from different character perspectives.
 
Chaptering was a great way to introduce changes in point-of-view, which by chapter three introduced the reader to the idea I would be “hopping heads” from time to time. Through these point-of-view shifts, the chapter breaks also served to allow the reader to take huge leaps in time and space. If I’m being honest, they also allowed me to be somewhat ambiguous about a difficult timeline that could, at times, be tricky to synchronize.
 
These “leaps in time” also presented me the opportunity to summarize, which allowed huge swaths of unnecessary characterization to be avoided. Think “montage”. Watching a magic user train a little bit is quite interesting. Watching every minute of their every day for 8 weeks is less than interesting. Remember what Hitchcock taught us: drama is life with the dull bits cut out.
 
Dang it. You asked something about chapter length or some such. Do me a favor and remind me in the next section. We’s talkin’ ’bout important stuffs right now!
 

Suspense

Remember when I said that chapter endings are not meant to be convenient places to put the book down? Suspense is what I was talking about. Consider ending your chapters and sections with something we call a “read-on prompt”. That’s a little tidbit that compels a reader to “read on” rather than closing the book for the night. Ideally, all of your sections and chapters will end with a read-on prompt.
 
You’ve heard some books described as “page turners” before, right? The words conjure an image of a poor, helpless reader who couldn’t help but read the entire book in a single sitting. Grab a book that you or someone else has labeled a “page turner” and flip through it. Take a look at most of the chapter endings and section breaks. I’m willing to bet most of them share at least one characteristic in common: they leave the reader wanting more.
 
It’s this sense of “I need more information and I need it now” that creates the “page-turner” effect. Master the use of the read-on prompt and you will be a step ahead of many other writers.
 
CRUD! Chapter length! Sorry. It’s just that there’s all this other important chapter-related jibber-jabber we gotta deal with first. Getting there, though!
 

Transitions

I don’t mean “transitions” the way writers typically mean transitions. The “crafty” use of Transitions usually refers to ebb and flow of prose, and how one paragraph or sentence morphs into the next, giving the impression of a well-orchestrated piece of music.

I’m talking about story transitions. I alluded to this above in the section on POV and Characterization. Necromancer Awakening, for example, involved three major story pieces, each of which took place hundreds of miles away from one another. But they needed to be integrated in such a way that the reader didn’t get a severe case of whiplash.

Chapter breaks allowed me to end one section leaving the reader burning to find out how it would be resolved, all while reading the next section. This pattern repeated with every chapter break. So I could jump hundreds of miles away, place the reader into an entirely new situation, but have them still clamoring to discover how the last situation would play out! Turn this crank enough, and readers will call your books “page turners” too.

So, Mr. Smarty Pants, what is the right length for a chapter?

It’s irrelevant. Doesn’t flippin’ matter. It’s neither here nor there. Worrying over the length is ziggin’ when you ought to be zaggin’.
 

Say What??

I’m serious. It doesn’t matter how long your chapter is, as long as it accomplishes its goal. Did you know that some notable writers don’t even use chapters? Others do so in some books but not others. Some books have been known to have one-word chapters!
 
Anyone who has followed me long enough has heard me say, time and again, writing is a craft. Like good craftsmen (craftspersons? hmmm, not sure about that one), we have a system of tools that we can draw on to accomplish specific tasks. Mastering the craft has a lot to do with knowing which tool to use under certain circumstances, and which tools to avoid under those same circumstances.
 
We like to count everything as writers. We count total words. We count chapter words. We count chapters. We count adverbs. We count exclamation marks. We count characters. We count plot lines. We count scenes. We count sections and section word counts. And we do so thinking, mistakenly, that these counts will somehow reach a perfect combination that equals success.
 
Chaptering is a tool. I’ve described four of the possible uses for chaptering, but that list is far from exhaustive. You’ll undoubtedly find others (as will I) as your (and my) craft improves.
 
It’s not the tool that makes a craftsman a master. It’s the work he or she produces with the tool that matters.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening.

Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He’s spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.

Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.

He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 21

  1. Thank you for summarizing chapter length so succinctly. 😉 Though you didn’t answer in terms of word count, I think you answered the question perfectly. As a new writer, I worried about this for a few days before realizing that as long as my chapter comprised a complete thought and left my reader wanting more, it would be the perfect length.

    1. The name of the book I was thinking of when I wrote the article eludes me, but there is a chapter in Stephen King’s “Misery” that has only a single word in italics: “Rinse.”

      That is so cool that you found this on Goodreads! I just linked my blog to the Goodreads site a few days ago, but I wasn’t sure how effective it would be in getting the word out. Now I know!

    2. Don’t shoot me, but Twilight #2, New Moon, has a few chapters with no words. They were meant to convey despair and passing time. Then you have on the other end of the spectrum, Brandon Sanderson’s final chapter in the Wheel of Time series. My husband has already warned me not to try to read the whole thing in one night. Hundreds of pages.

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      I promise, no shooting! 🙂

      Funny that you mention Sanderson. I’m currently reading “A Gathering Storm” (I’m at the tale end).

    1. Thanks for sharing that, William!

      Chapters are very much just another tool for the writer to employ in the greater task of telling a story.

  2. You are so right about chapter lengths varying according to genre. After one has written in one genre for a while, I think he or she gets an instinctive sense of when a chapter needs to end.But that does take lots of practice and several books. For new writers, I would suggest they read a few books in the genre in which they plan to write and see how seasoned authors have set the pace.

  3. I ran into this, “In adult fiction, the recommended chapter length is 5000 words or less. Adult readers average 20 minutes reading before bed. They like to end with a chapter break. The average adult reads 250 words per minute, therefor a chapter should not exceed 5000 words. (20 minutes x 250=5000),” over at Jennifer Lynn Alvarez’s website awhile ago. Of course I agree that there should be no hard and fast rule, but I found it helpful to have an idea in mind early in my drafting, especially since my pacing starts too quickly as I race my brain to get words on paper. Just being able to say, “Eh, maybe sit in this scene for more than a paragraph,” or “How about adding something besides dialogue?” encouraged better writing from me.

    1. I’m a huge proponent of finding a tool and/or process that works for you and sticking to it! The most important thing of all is getting the words on paper and being true to your story.

  4. Love this! I tend to like short chapters because when I worked, I liked to be able to finish a chapter on a 15 minute break, which had to include a potty break and a stop at the coffee machine as well. (Ok, sometimes I pushed it to 20 minutes, but I was the supervisor, darn it!) I remember a book–a very good book–I read once that had one chapter that was one paragraph long. But even I find that as the story gets more involved, so do my chapters. Yeah, I think you nailed it.

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  5. Lots of helpful information in this article and in the comments.
    To add to them, I would caution against making your manuscript top or bottom heavy (in
    terms of chapter length).

  6. Pingback: Friday Finds: Week 20 | Avid Reader

  7. Always great Nat. I want to mention, however, from a reader’s perspective, I mainly read at night before closing my eyes. It really bothers me when I can’t read to the next chapter when some are just toooooo long.

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      Thanks Dave!

      I agree. It was always a pet peeve of mine as well. I’m reading a book right now that suffers from the opposite problem: chapters are incredibly short, and there’s a lot of POV switching. The POV switching isn’t a problem in and of itself, but combined with the ultra short chapters, it’s giving me whiplash!

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